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8 october 2011

So I took a quick survey of the spices in my kitchen cabinet. Allspice, amchoor, caraway, cardamom, cayenne, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, ginger, kalonji, mace, mustard, nutmeg, safflower, sesame, paprika (sweet, hot, and smoked), black pepper, pepper flakes, Sichuan pepper, white pepper, and turmeric. Not to mention herbs, of course, and various concoctions like curry powders, chili powders, lemon pepper, and garlic salt. No garam masala or ras-el-hanout, however, because by the time those mixtures had entered my lexicon, I realized that all curries and chili formulas and other secret spice blends are a mixture of elements I already had – usually precious few of them, in predictable proportions.

Fred Czarra, in Spices: A Global History, reduces the palette still further. He identifies five spices that have dominated world trade and globalized cuisines: cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, and chilies. The first four are native to tropical Asia. Though they've been grown in parts of the tropics outside their native ranges (nutmeg, in particular, has been transplanted from Indonesia to the Caribbean with iconic success), they will not grow in temperate climates, and still today must be imported to the U.S. and Europe via routes that echo the fabled spice caravans of old.

Chili, by contrast, is a New World plant, like other kinds of pepper, distantly related to its New World cousin and frequent recipe partner, the tomato. Until Columbus, or to be precise until Columbus's open-minded ship's physician Alvarez Chanca, no European had tasted chili pepper (100). But with a little care, chili can be grown across a great range of climates. Within a couple of centuries, the hot condiment of the Caribbean was a fixture in the gardens of Africa, India, Arabia, Greece, Italy, and as far afield as Hungary, where as paprika, in various accentuated sweet and hot forms, it would become the dominant note of a great national cuisine.

You can make a decent basic spicy dish with just Czarra's five elemental spices. Fry onions and garlic in olive oil, add cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, black pepper, and cayenne, and then saute some vegetables of your choice in the resulting mess till they get as done as you like them. To some Americans this would still be adventurous cooking. It is delicious cooking, but it's limited; and the same can be said of Czarra's book. By limiting his scope to just these five master spices, Czarra turns what might have been a global history of the weird and wonderful into somewhat generic fare.

There are other weaknesses in Czarra's Spices. There's considerable repetition; he'll go over the five spices and then go over them again, repeating much of the information. There's extraneous illustration: though the book covers just its five core ingredients, there are lots of pictures of things like fenugreek and saffron that make me long for a more expansive text. And there's a basic lack of attention to the spices themselves.

Spices: A Global History takes its subtitle more seriously than other entries in the Reaktion Edible series. It's mostly a history of global trade in spices. The four pre-eminent Asian spices travel well, and can't be grown in Europe (or in temperate parts of China). Hence the necessity of trade if Europeans and northern Chinese people want to eat them; though the "why" of how spices came to dominate world economies is less explored in Czarra's book. Czarra devotes long paragraphs to wars, trade agreements, merchant companies, and treaties. Some of this makes for intriguing trivia: the British occupation of Manhattan Island, for instance, was apparently payback for the Dutch seizure of a minor nutmeg island in the East Indies. But more often, pages will go by and no mention of spice at all, just these guys grabbed that island and those others retreated to this one.

So Spices: A Global History is a book whose title tends to disappear in favor of a rather spiceless interpretation of its subtitle. There are still things to learn from it, though, and there are the usual gorgeous Reaktion illustrations. It's a quick read, and contains a generous bibliography for further spicy reading.

Czarra, Fred. Spices: A global history. London: Reaktion, 2009.